Federal candidates agree on N.W.T. devolution as issue at forum

All five candidates vying to represent Western Arctic in Parliament say the Northwest Territories has been waiting too long for a devolution deal with the federal government.

All five candidates vying to represent Western Arctic in Parliament agreed on at least one thing at a forum Wednesday: The Northwest Territories has been waiting too long for a devolution deal with the federal government.

Sam Gamble, left, and Dennis Bevington field questions from the audience at the CBC North forum Wednesday in Yellowknife. ((Courtesy Sue Glowach))
Appearing before a crowd of about 200 at a CBC North all-candidates forum Wednesday night in Yellowknife, the candidates from all political stripes said the next MP for Western Arctic should push for faster progress to finish devolution talks.

The N.W.T. could then finally gain more province-like powers from the federal government and have greater control over its resources and revenues, they agreed. Devolution talks have been in the works for decades, but without an agreement to date.

Green candidate Sam Gamble cited devolution as a way to address social issues, such as having enough affordable child-care spaces in the territory.

"If you look at what the federal government has handed to the territorial government and local governments, it's health care, education, child care — all the expensive programs. But they haven't handed over the programs that earn money, that control the pace of development," Gamble said during Wednesday's forum.

"So I think we need to do is finish devolution [negotiations], finish self-government, finish the land claims, so we have control over our own destiny, and that would include improving child care in a way that meets northerners' needs."

Conservative candidate Brendan Bell, a N.W.T. cabinet minister under former premier Joe Handley, said the territorial government came very close to an agreement-in-principle on devolution with Ottawa last year.

"I think that needs to be picked up now. I don't think the gaps are so large. I know where the gaps are. They are technical issues … but these things are not insurmountable," Bell said.

"We can work to get a very good deal," he added. "I think we can work more effectively from inside government. I'm prepared to do that, and this will be one of my priorities. I don't think it has to take the next 20 years, but I am concerned about it. We need to move quickly."

Bevington calls for tough stand with Ottawa

New Democrat Dennis Bevington, who is seeking his second term as Western Arctic MP, said aboriginal, municipal and territorial governments must first come to an agreement on what the N.W.T. wants from devolution, then make a tough stand with the federal government.

"We may have to take the federal government to court. The Sahtu did it over the royalties from the Norman Wells field. The Sahtu took them to court and got a favourable hearing," Bevington said.

"So what we need to do is have a good strategy that says, 'This is what we want in the Northwest Territories, this is how we're going to approach it, and we're going to hold up on development until we get what we want.'"

Brendan Bell, left, Noeline Villebrun, centre, and Gabrielle Mackenzie-Scott, right, took part in Wednesday's all-candidates forum. ((Courtesy Sue Glowach))
Liberal candidate Gabrielle Mackenzie-Scott said the only way the N.W.T. will prosper is if it gets its own share of resource revenues from Ottawa. She said northern politicians need to gather the political will to make that happen.

"We need to get that back on the table," Mackenzie-Scott said. "We need to get our share. That's the only way the north is going to prosper … We shouldn't have to go begging for it, especially in the North — it's our land."

And Noeline Villebrun, who is running for the First Peoples National Party of Canada, said the Dene have waited more than a century for a fair share of the N.W.T.'s resources.

"I have waited 108 years for this devolution process to start, when my treaty was signed on my behalf. And we are still waiting for this process," she said.

On issues generally, Villebrun said she recognizes that her party will not form government, "but our party can definitely work with the other parties."

"I am hoping that every party that is sitting in Parliament support every people's issue, because that's what we're lacking right now," she said.

Audience members at Wednesday's forum also asked the candidates for their positions on topics ranging from home heating prices to the war in Afghanistan. In a more light-hearted moment, the candidates were even asked what kind of vehicle they drive.